Wise | Proper 15

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

2:10 Then David lay down with his ancestors and was buried in David’s City. 11 He ruled over Israel forty years–seven years in Hebron and thirty-three years in Jerusalem.

12 Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his royal power was well established.

3:3 Now Solomon loved the LORD by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines.

4 The king went to the great shrine at Gibeon in order to sacrifice there. He used to offer a thousand entirely burned offerings on that altar. 5 The LORD appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”

6 Solomon responded, “You showed so much kindness to your servant my father David when he walked before you in truth, righteousness, and with a heart true to you. You’ve kept this great loyalty and kindness for him and have now given him a son to sit on his throne. 7 And now, LORD my God, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David’s place. But I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. 8 But I’m here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size. 9 Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.”

10 It pleased the LORD that Solomon had made this request. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies– asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment–12 I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. 13 I now also give you what you didn’t ask for: wealth and fame. There won’t be a king like you as long as you live. 14 And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life.” (CEB)

Wise

The story of Solomon’s request for wisdom is iconic. Most of us probably heard the story in Sunday School classes when we were kids. But, just like today’s text, Sunday School lessons tend to skip over the ugly parts, like the executions that helped secure Solomon’s rule. Our text begins with David’s death and a recap of the number of years he ruled. And we’re told that Solomon sat on David’s throne.

In chapter three, there are some curious comments that only make sense when we realize that the books of Kings are part of a group of writings that includes Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Samuel called Deuteronomic History. The majority of scholars date the first versions of these books to the reign of King Josiah, who was killed in battle with Pharoah Necho II at Megiddo in 609 B.C. These Deuteronomic texts present a theology called Deuteronomic theology, which declares that bad things happen to people and nations because they’re getting what they deserve due to sin they’ve committed. One thing these books do is assign blame for the ruinous things that occurred in Israel’s history. These texts were likely edited during the Babylonian Exile, or early in the Post-exilic period. The edited versions introduce a focus on a single place of worship, which was the Temple in Jerusalem.

Now, the reason scholars believe these books were edited is because the idea of a central place of worship for the People of Israel didn’t show up until Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms, at the earliest, and maybe not until the post-exilic period with the priest Ezra. Before those reforms, the people worshipped all over the place. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob built altars and shrines all over the place. The Tabernacle that God told Moses to build as the people wondered through the wilderness of Sinai was designed as a mobile sanctuary that was erected wherever Israel camped.

At times it rested at Gilgal (Joshua 4,5,10), Shiloh (Joshua 18,19,22) where it remained for about 350 years. It was also likely at Bethel (Judges 20), probably at Nob (1 Samuel 21-22), and it was definitely at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39). When David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the Tabernacle remained at Gibeon until Solomon brought it to Jerusalem for the dedication of the Temple (c.f. 1 Kings 8:4).

First Kings 3:3 tells us, “Now Solomon loved the Lord by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines” (CEB). It’s that second half of the verse that makes it sound like sacrificing and burning incense at the shrines was a bad thing. And, to the later editors of the Deuteronomic writings, it was! But through all of Israel’s history up to Solomon’s day at beyond the people of Israel were supposed to worship at the Tabernacle. David may have moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, but the Tabernacle was where God met the people. It was the sign and place of God’s presence within Israel.

So, despite the disapproval of whoever edited 1 Kings, Solomon was actually doing exactly what he was supposed to do! The proof that Solomon was doing what’s right is proved in the fact that, after he worshipped in the Tabernacle at Gibeon, God showed up. Actually, God did more than show up. God appeared to Solomon in a dream and offered to give him anything he wished. He’s the only one who ever got that kind of a blank check from God.

If God were to give us the same offer, how would we respond? Would we answer right away, or would we have to think about it? What would we ask for? The way we answer that question would certainly reveal our priorities.

As for Solomon, he paused to reflect on his father’s life and on his own. He noted how much kindness God showed to David when he walked before the Lord in truth, righteousness, and with a heart that was true to God. The Lord’s kindness and loyalty to David had now been extended to himself since Solomon now sat on his father’s throne. Solomon recognized that God made him king in David’s place. This wasn’t something Solomon accomplished on his own.

Solomon also recognized that the task of ruling was beyond his ability and experience. At the same time, he recognized that the people he was to govern were important. They were God’s own chosen people. I think Solomon recognized that he might be the king, but the people of Israel belong to God, not to him. He was a steward. So, he asked for a “discerning mind” in order to govern God’s people and to distinguish good from evil. “No one,” Solomon confessed, “is able to govern this important people of yours without your help” (1 Kings 3:9 CEB).

There are a few things we should note about Solomon’s request. First, translations vary. Some say Solomon asked for a “discerning heart” (NIVO), an “understanding mind” (RSV, NRSV), an “understanding heart” (KJV), or a “discerning mind” (CEB). As a kid, I always heard my teachers say that Solomon asked for wisdom, which is what God gave him in verse 12. But, Walter Brueggemann translates it as listening heart because the Hebrew word is ‎שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙  (shema), which means hear, listen. Brueggemann wrote, “It is remarkable that the phrase is not ‘to speak justice’ or ‘do justice,’ but instead to ‘hear justice,’ suggesting that justice is not in the verdict or in the imagination of the king but is intrinsic to the case itself, if only the king listens well enough to hear” (Feasting on the Word, Proper 15 Essay, 6).

That observation made me wonder, How well do we listen? We live in a culture where distractions can easily drown out the voices of people who need to be heard. Imagine how welcome listening hearts would be at the family dinner table. Imagine how supportive listening hearts could be in a worshipping congregation. Imagine how listening hearts might transform lives on a factory floor or a company boardroom. Imagine how welcome—and relieving—a listening heart would be in a government leader.

Solomon asked for the gift he needed to do the task to which he’d been appointed. He didn’t make his request for his own benefit. He asked for a listening heart for the benefit of his people, so that he could care for others and care for them well. Solomon was aware that this gentle wisdom, a listening heart given by God, would allow him to govern the people. He wanted to use the power of his office as King for the good of others. And that’s what pleased the Lord. Solomon’s humility toward God and selflessness toward God’s people probably made God smile. So, God gave him a heart of wisdom and discernment.

In almost every culture that is or has ever been, people clamor for power, wealth, and advantage over others. So, I imagine that, for most of us, the idea of having our greatest wish granted by the God of the Universe would be like winning the lottery. If riches or power or fame were what we desired, then we would find ourselves with sudden power, influence, and notoriety. Yet, Solomon understood that our requirement—what God wants from us—is selflessness toward others. That’s what Jesus teaches. It’s what the prophets declare. It’s what the Law of Moses states. The Old and New Testaments describe the qualities of life that are pleasing to God: that we empty ourselves for others, that we seek the common good, that we put the needs of others before our own, and that we acknowledge our dependence on God and God’s gifts to us.

Where did Solomon get this humility? Where did he get this selflessness? Honestly, I think it stems from Solomon’s love for and worship of the Lord. Worship has a way of transforming us. It affects how we live, how we love, how we give. It molds and forms us into God’s people, and it connects us to one another and to God.

Proverbs 1:7 tells us that “Wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (CEB). Solomon’s wisdom was famous across the world. Yet, it wasn’t really Solomon’s. Wisdom, the Old Testament writings declare, comes from God and is given to humanity as a gift (c.f. Proverbs 1; Sirach 1). Solomon’s listening heart was a gift from God.

What we also learn from Solomon is that everything else we have is a gift from God, too. Solomon could have asked for wealth, fame, and a long life. He could have put himself first. Instead, he sought to be made into an instrument that God could use for the good of others. In essence, Solomon’s request was along the lines of what Jesus would later tell us to do: “…desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Flesh | Proper 14

John 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 The Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

42 They asked, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

43 Jesus responded, “Don’t grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God. He has seen the Father. 47 I assure you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (CEB)

Flesh

One great difficulty with grasping the Gospel of John, at least for us post-modern, linear thinkers, is that John’s thought process—and therefore his writing—doesn’t match ours. We expect a somewhat linear format, but John presents his story in a format that seems to spiral and dance around the center-point. It’s almost a kind of poetry in the disguise of narrative prose. Another difficulty is that the Gospel seems to be written on two levels: physical and spiritual. Some interpreters tend to spiritualize the Gospel while discarding the physical as mere allegory for that deeper, spiritual meaning. Other interpreters tend to emphasize the physical aspects while holding the spiritual inuendo in a kind of uncomfortable tension. I’m of the mind that we need to pay attention to both sides of the debate.

John chapter 6 is especially difficult. Aside from immediate thoughts of cannibalism and wondering if we’re allowed to eat Jesus’ flesh grilled or fried with a little ketchup, how are we to understand Jesus’ words in verses 41-51? Specifically, how do we eat Jesus’ flesh? That’s one of the questions we’ll explore.

But, before we get there, we need to look at how this conversation even got started. After all, it’s weird, and starting in the middle of the conversation doesn’t help. Have you ever had a conversation that got kind of weird and stopped to say, How did we get to talking about this, anyway? Sometimes, to understand what we’re talking about, we have to go back and figure out how we started the conversation to begin with.

This conversation develops out of the events in verse 24 and following. That’s when the crowds began looking for Jesus after his disciples got into trouble during a storm on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus came to them, walking on the water. When the crowd found Jesus, they asked him how he got to Capernaum because they knew he hadn’t travelled in the boat with his disciples (c.f. 6:22). Jesus didn’t answer their question. Instead, he told the people why they were and were not looking for him. They weren’t looking for him because he had done a miraculous sign, but because they ate their fill of bread when he fed the 5,000. Then, he said, “Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. God the Father has confirmed him as his agent to give life” (John 6:27 CEB).

The people asked what they had to do to accomplish the work of God, and Jesus said they had to believe in the one whom God sent. Then, they asked what miraculous sign he would do so they could see and believe. After all, their ancestors ate bread from heaven. All Jesus gave them was a stomach-full of barley bread.

Note that this question kind of proves Jesus’ point that they hadn’t searched for him because he’d done a sign in the feeding of the 5,000. They’d just seen a sign. We were told earlier that a large crowd followed him because they’d seen the miraculous signs he’d done among the sick (6:2). It seems the people of this crowd had short-term memory loss. Or, somehow, they didn’t recognize the signs they had seen for what they were.

This is really the place where the conversation about bread begins. Jesus tells his questioners that it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven, but his father who gives the true bread from heaven. “The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33 CEB). The people’s response was, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” (John 6:34 CEB). That’s where our text picks up with verse 35, where Jesus said, “I am the bread of life…” (CEB).

The Jewish opposition, which is a different group from the crowds though they were likely mixed in among them, grumbled about Jesus because he said he is the bread of life. After all, some among their number were locals from Capernaum. They knew Jesus. They knew his father and his mother. They knew his identity and his origin. How could he say that he’s the bread that came down from heaven?

Jesus responds by telling them not to grumble. No one can come to him unless they’re drawn by the Father who sent him, and Jesus will raise them up on the last day. It’s curious that the word Jesus uses for drawn is found later in John 12, where Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me” (12:32 CEB). In John 6, Jesus says the Father draws people to him. In John 12, he says that he will draw people to himself. It might seem contradictory, except that we need to remember John 1, where we’re told, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1 CEB). Jesus the Word and God the Father are one God together (with the Holy Spirit).

When the Father draws people to Jesus, the Father is drawing them to God. When the death of Jesus on the cross draws people to himself, he’s drawing people to God. When held together with John 12:32, verse 6:44 does not suggest there are people the Father doesn’t draw. Rather, it emphasizes that everyone who comes to Jesus does so by the grace and prodding of God.

From that grace-filled prodding comes our action of listening and learning. When we listen and learn from God, we come to Jesus who was sent by God to raise us up at the last day. Jesus assures us that whoever believes has eternal life, and he is the bread of life. He’s a different kind of bread than the manna of the wilderness that their ancestors ate. That bread filled a physical need. They ate it, and they still died. Manna in the wilderness was a gift, but it wasn’t something that had eternal consequences. In fact, it only lasted for the day on which it was gathered (c.f. Exodus 16:20).

This bread, the bread of life which is Jesus, fills a whole lot more than a physical need. Whoever eats of the bread of life will never die. When Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51 CEB), what does he mean?

To Christians, there’s an obvious connection to the Sacrament of the Eucharist: the mystery in which we eat the bread and drink the grape juice (or wine), which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We can be sure that Jesus is referring to a physical act of eating because, in verse 54, Jesus changes the word he’s been using for eat from φάγῃ to τρώγων, which means chew, bite, chomp, gnaw, munch and includes an element of sound. It’s loud and abrasive like crunching your way through a bag of potato chips. My wife can’t stand the sound of other people chewing, but that’s exactly what Jesus says beginning in verse 54. Because of that word change, there’s no way to spiritualize our way out of the physicality of this.

At the same time, eating is used in Ezekiel and Revelation as a way of internalizing something. In Ezekiel, the prophet said: “Then I looked, and there in a hand stretched out to me was a scroll. He spread it open in front of me, and it was filled with writing on both sides, songs of mourning, lamentation, and doom. Then he said to me: Human one, eat this thing that you’ve found. Eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. He said to me: Human one, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you. So I ate it, and in my mouth it became as sweet as honey. Then he said to me: Human one, go! Go to the house of Israel and speak my words to them” (Ezekiel 2:9-3:4 CEB).

In Revelation, John the Seer recounts, “‘So I went to the angel and told him to give me the scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will make you sick to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. And it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it made my stomach churn. I was told, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings’” (Revelation 10:9-11 CEB).

In both of these texts, the prophets had to eat the scroll as a way of internalizing God’s word so they could speak it properly. Eating was a way of knowing. Psalm 34:8 tells us to “Taste and see how good the Lord is!” (CEB) as though God’s goodness is something we can sample and recognize.

In the Old Testament, salvation is often described in terms of eating. Isaiah 55 says, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live” (v.1-3b CEB). In Proverbs 9:5, Lady Wisdom invites us to “Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed” (CEB).

Life comes from eating and drinking, so it’s not surprising that such simple, life-giving acts would be used to describe the life-giving goodness of God and eternal life through belief in Jesus Christ. The bread Jesus gave for the life of the world was his flesh, nailed to a cross and killed. How do we eat the bread of Jesus, which is his flesh?

In one sense, we chew it in the Eucharist. We eat the flesh of Christ and take the grace of God into ourselves in a physical way. In another sense, eating is equated with believing in Jesus. We believe and, therefore, take God into ourselves—into our heart, mind, and soul—in a spiritual way. When we eat the living bread as Christ tells us we must do, then we will live forever. Jesus will raise us up on the last day.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Prophet | Proper 12

John 6:1-21

1 After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. 3 Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. 4 It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

5 Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” 6 Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.

7 Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”

8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, 9 “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. 12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.

14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

16 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. 17 They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. 18 The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. 20 He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading. (CEB)

The Prophet

As a kid, I remember watching Dr. J’s retirement season from basketball. I remember my mom telling me he was one of the greatest players ever, and that’s why he was being honored everywhere he played for the last time. I also watched Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas square off against each other in some of the greatest basketball games ever played. During the ‘80s decade, the NBA championship was won by either the Lakers, the Celtics, the 76ers, or the Pistons. I usually rooted for the Celtics because of Larry Bird. But I also pulled for the Pistons because my mom’s family is from Detroit, and Isaiah Thomas played for Indiana.

I don’t remember there being much of a question about what was next for professional basketball when Dr. J., Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas retired because Michael Jordan was already playing for the Bulls. And, he seemed to surpass everyone who came before him. I recall some speculation that Kobe Bryant might be the next Michael Jordan after Jordan’s second retirement in 1999. These days, people argue about who was the best player of all time, and Michael Jordan is always in that conversation. I think it’s because he was the greatest. He’s the standard against which every other player is measured. When a new great player comes along—and new great players are expected to come along—they’re always compared to the accomplishments of Michael Jordan.

The Jewish people had expectations, too. They expected that leaders would be raised up from among their people, and their measuring stick was Moses. During particularly difficult times, such as the years of Roman occupation, the expectation for such God-raised leadership grew to the point of desperation. We know from a few passages of Scripture that several hopefuls had risen, and that was also expected to continue happening (c.f. Acts 5:34-39; Matthew 24:11; Mark 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1-2).

You see, for the average Jewish peasant, Jesus was the hope of the day. More than that, he’d been doing these signs of healing the sick and diseased. The people saw these signs, and they dared to hope that Jesus was the next great-one. But for many among the Jewish leadership, Jesus was yet another probably-false prophet coming to make a splash before getting crushed by the Romans, and taking a whole lot of poor, hopeful innocents with him. To them, Jesus was someone they were skeptical of from day one because false prophets seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.

When Jesus returned to Galilee from Jerusalem, he crossed the Sea and a large crowd followed him because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. We’re told that it was close to the time for the Jewish festival of Passover, and that might be a clue to who this crowd of people were. Passover was a pilgrimage festival: a time when the people were expected to travel to Jerusalem to sacrifice their family’s Passover Lamb at the Temple. Because these people who followed Jesus hadn’t gone to Jerusalem, this crowd might well have been made up of those who were too poor to travel and pay for lodging and a lamb during such festivals. If that’s the case, then they couldn’t fulfill their religious obligations because they were too poor to do so. Their poverty kept them from participating fully in their Jewish faith.

The mention of Passover also points us to Moses. It’s a subtle reminder of Israel’s past, and the promise that God would raise up leaders for the people. The story that follows is meant to show us that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.

Jesus went up a mountain and sat with his disciples, probably teaching them. When he looked up, he saw a large crowd coming toward him. Jesus asked the question, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” The Gospel writer gives us an insiders-view of the question by telling us that it’s a test and that Jesus already knew what he was going to do.

Philip, the project feasibility disciple, gave the crowd a once-over, did some quick math, and determined that more than half a year’s salary wouldn’t be enough to give so many people even a small bite. Andrew, the resource management disciple, had already taken inventory and reported that a youth had five barley loaves and two fish, but that obviously wouldn’t feed this many people.

With neither of those answers sufficing, Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down. There were about five-thousand of them. Then, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks to God, and distributed it to the people. Then, he did the same with the fish. In this story, Jesus, himself, is the one who served the people. Every person got as much as they wanted. When everyone was sighing with satisfied bellies, Jesus had the disciples gather up the leftovers, “so that nothing will be wasted.”

Now, we don’t know what became of the leftovers. Maybe each of the Twelve Disciples got a carry-out basket. Maybe the saying that “nothing will be wasted” is meant to show that the leftovers of the world, whether they’re food or people like those in the crowd, are important enough to be gathered in rather than abandoned. Jesus showed over and again that he loves and cares for the people that the rest of society had abandoned. This action begs certain questions.

How will we care for the “leftovers” of Mount Vernon and beyond? How will we care for the people who’ve been abandoned and even wounded by our social structures? Rugged Individualism might be an American ideal, but it is absolutely NOT a Christian one. Jesus took care of people, especially the poor and outcast. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we must do the same. Of course, that begs another question: Do we really want to be disciples of Jesus? And, while I assume most of us would say, Yes, we should consider whether we’re willing to examine the fullness of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and, maybe—probably—change our hearts and lives so we better reflect the meaning of discipleship. Repentance is something everyone needs to do, all the time.

When the people saw what Jesus had done, that he had accomplished something miraculous and beyond explanation, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world” (John 6:14 CEB). The people were so excited that that they were about to come and make Jesus their king by force. So, Jesus took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

Earlier, I said that the Jews expected leadership, and I said that the reference to Passover—in one sense—points to Moses. When the people responded by saying, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world,” what did they mean? John chapter 1 gives us part of the answer. When John was baptizing, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask John who he was.

And we’re told, “John confessed (he didn’t deny but confessed), ‘I’m not the Christ.’

They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’

John said, ‘I’m not.’

‘Are you the prophet?’

John answered, ‘No.’

They asked, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

John replied, ‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight, just as the prophet Isaiah said.’

Those sent by the Pharisees asked, ‘Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’

John answered, ‘I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps’” (John. 1:20-27 CEB).

The reason people expected the Christ, which comes from the Greek word for Messiah, is because the prophets spoke of one who would come from the line of King David. (c.f. Isaiah 9, 11, 53; Jeremiah 23, 33; Zechariah 3, 6). After all, God had promised David that someone from David’s line would be king forever (c.f. 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89:34-37; Daniel 2:44).

The reason the people expected Elijah to come is because the prophet Malachi said that Elijah would be sent before The Day of the Lord arrives (c.f. Malachi 4:5). The prophets spoke of The Day of the Lord as a time of terror when the Lord would redress the world for its evil (c.f. Isaiah 13, 24; Ezekiel 30; Joel; Amos 5; Obadiah; Zephaniah), and the idea was well-known to the New Testament writers (c.f. Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 5; 1 Thessalonians 5; 2 Thessalonians 2; 2 Peter 3). Sometimes it’s referred to as Judgment Day.

The reason the people expected “The Prophet” is because of what God promised the people of Israel through Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to” (CEB).

So, there was, at least, a three-fold expectation. The Messiah, Elijah, and The Prophet Like Moses were expected to come and start to right the world’s and Israel’s wrongs. When Jesus did this sign, the people identified him as The Prophet Like Moses who was coming into the world, and they were ready to make him king. But, as Jesus told Pilate before he was crucified, the kingdom of Jesus is not of this world (c.f. John 18:36).

The account of Jesus walking on the water pushed the matter of Jesus’ identity even further. Jesus’ disciples tried to cross the lake when a storm swept in and drove them three or four miles out from shore. The disciples saw Jesus coming toward them, and they were afraid. Jesus said, “I Am. Don’t be afraid” (John 6:20b CEB). The disciples wanted to take Jesus into the boat, and suddenly they reached the land where they had been heading. The event is reminiscent of when Moses led the Hebrews safely through the sea. This phrase used by Jesus, “I Am” is significant because it’s what the Lord told Moses to say to the Hebrews while they were still slaves in Egypt: “Tell them I Am has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14 CEB).

One thing this text tells us is that Jesus fulfills the expectation of Messiah and The Prophet. And it pushes our faith further by identifying Jesus as I Am. It ties together what John told us in the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:1, 14 CEB).

We’re also reminded that what is broken should be gathered rather than discarded, because not even that which is broken should go to waste. And, again, part of me wonders if this isn’t, in some way, an analogy for broken and hurting people. Either way, I think those twelve baskets of leftovers remind us that, beyond the 5,000 who were satisfied, there are more hungry bellies that need to be fed. And a basket for each disciple suggests that God has given the disciples of Jesus enough resources to feed and satisfy those who are in need.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

God’s Glory | Proper 10

Ephesians 1:3-14

3 Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. 4 God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan 6 and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. 7 We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, 8 which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding. 9 God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. 10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. 11 We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. 12 We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. 13 You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory. (CEB)

God’s Glory

The Book of Ephesians might not be the book to the Ephesians. The oldest Greek manuscripts of this book actually lack the words, “…in Ephesus” found in verse two. It’s possible that Ephesians was not originally written to the church at Ephesus. For one thing, there’s evidence in Ephesians that suggests it wasn’t written to that church. For example, Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” (1:15). But we know that Paul spent three years in Ephesus. He wouldn’t have heard of the Ephesians’ faith and love, he would have seen and experienced it first-hand. (c.f. also Ephesians 4:21).

And, there are some possible references in other letters of Paul. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, After this letter has been read to you publicly, make sure that the church in Laodicea reads it and that you read the one from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16 CEB). This tells us that Paul wrote a letter to the church at Laodicea, but we don’t have a letter of his that is addressed to that city. It’s possible that what we call Ephesians was originally his letter to the Laodiceans.

Either way, this letter eventually became associated with Ephesus. So, we call it Ephesians whether it was originally written to the Ephesian Christians or not.

So, that’s your little interesting tidbit regarding the history of the New Testament text. Whoever the original recipients of the letter might have been, they got a powerful letter.

Maybe the people Paul addressed in this letter had forgotten just how gracious and good God is. Maybe they had forgotten that God has a plan that includes everything in creation. Maybe they had forgotten that God is the grand designer and creator of this world, and God won’t let our shortcomings or failures get in the way of fulfilling everything God has intended to accomplish. Maybe they had forgotten that the story of salvation, itself, is God’s story. It’s about what God has done on our behalf. God is the main actor. We’re the ones for whom God acts, and we’re the ones who have been acted upon.

In this letter, Paul sets out to remind them—and us—about these things. First, we’re reminded that we have had an abundance of grace and blessings heaped upon us. Because of Jesus Christ, we have every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. In other places, Paul lists some of those blessings.

God has chosen us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. Paul asserts that this choosing was before the creation of the world and, if you recall that God’s original plan for creation was to have human beings living in perfect relationship with God, then this statement is a reminder that God hasn’t given up on that original plan. God made us for that purpose—to be holy and blameless in God’s presence—and even though we fell from that holiness through sin, God intends to make us holy again by restoring our holiness through Jesus Christ.

God made it, we broke it, God fixed it. Even though we turned away from God, rejecting God as our parent and the love of our lives, God still chooses us. God isn’t going to let us go. God chose to adopt us despite our rejection of God because, before the world was made, God designed us to be holy and blameless and to live as children in God’s household. That’s our purpose. That’s who we’re supposed to be. That’s the kind of relationship with God we’re supposed to have. And God isn’t about to let us not fulfill what we were created to be.

The idea that God destined—or predetermined—us to be adopted children is rooted in God’s original plan for us to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. In that sense, the word destined has little to do with the Calvinistic idea of predestination and everything to do with God’s unwavering action to accomplish that original plan for us. It isn’t about individuals, but the whole human race. We will belong to God again, one way or another, because God loves us. God will not let us go. In fact, God has worked around our sin and crushed it by sending Jesus Christ. Our salvation was God’s initiative, and God has done this because God loves us. Everything God has done for us has been for our good, which has always been God’s plan. God has nothing but goodwill toward us.

The problem is, we became captives to sin—and in some ways we still are. But we also have forgiveness for our failures because of God’s overflowing grace. The blood of Jesus Christ has ransomed us from that captivity to sin. Paul writes that God’s grace has been poured over us with wisdom and understanding, which means we have the God-given ability live into God’s plan for us. We can choose good over evil because of God’s grace. While the fullness of salvation is a future event, the effects of what Jesus has done for us are real, now. We can choose to love because of God’s grace. We can choose faithfulness to God and to each other because of God’s grace.

We have the example and teaching of Jesus, who came to reveal God and God’s design for our salvation to us. Again, the plan for our salvation was initiated by God because of God’s goodwill toward us. And God intended to accomplish the plan through Jesus Christ.

One way we can look at sin is as though it’s an infectious disease that we all contract simply by being conceived as a human being. The Greek words for saved and salvation, in their normal sense, mean healed and healing. Sin is the disease, God’s salvation through Jesus Christ is the cure.

According to Paul, this plan of God’s is universal. “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Eph. 1:10 CEB). God’s great plan will come to its climax when all things are brought together in Christ.

All things, Paul writes. It’s reminiscent of what Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all things to myself” (John 6:32, my trans). Jesus told us that in his crucifixion, he would drag us to himself. That word drag is not a soft word. It’s often translated into English as a softer word, such as draw. But it’s not a gentle word. Jesus is going to drag all things to himself. It might require some hog-tying, but Jesus isn’t going to be denied any little part of all things.

That word, all, which is πάντα in Greek, leaves no room for exclusion. There is nothing that exists outside of God’s power, and if God wants all things, then God’s gonna get all things. Some people become aware of our identity in Christ, others might not become aware of it in their earthly lifetime. But not being aware doesn’t mean that person isn’t equally loved, equally desired, equally precious, and equally hoped-for as a child of God. What Paul’s telling us is that getting all things together in Christ is exactly the climactic finale of God’s plan. All means all. And God will accomplish it.

That idea is pushed further by Paul’s mention of an inheritance in Christ. Once again, Paul says God destined us according to a plan. Again, that plan points back to God’s original intent for humanity in creation: that we should live in perfect relationship with God and stand in God’s presence as holy and blameless children. It isn’t that only a small number of people are predestined to salvation. That idea completely ignores the truth of God’s intent “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Galatians 1:10 CEB). God will accomplish everything according to God’s design, and God’s design includes all.

Those of us who are aware of our place in God’s design are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We, who hope in Christ and who know the good news of salvation in Christ as truth, are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit because we believed in Christ. In fact, Paul tells us that “The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory” (Ephesians 1:14 CEB).

This is to say that our inheritance is to become family with God. Our inheritance is to become a part of God’s household. Children inherit. Our inheritance is the very thing that was originally supposed to be ours—the thing for which God had destined us before the world began: that we would be God’s children, that we would be holy and blameless, that we would live in God’s presence.

The down payment of the Holy Spirit is for our sake. It’s meant to reassure us that God is taking care of things, that God’s plan for the human race and for all things will, indeed, be accomplished. Our redemption by Christ, and our living as redeemed people, results in the honor of God’s glory.

If we want to honor God’s glory, if we want to glorify the God of our redemption and salvation, then we live as redeemed people. We love as those who know the love of God so deeply that we can’t do anything else but love others as we have been loved. As children of God, we have a purpose and a call.

The fullness of salvation, which is life with God as a family, is a future reality. But it’s when we begin to live that way, now, as people who live and love as Christ lived and loved, that we bring glory to the God of our salvation. It’s then that we bring honor to God for the grace and blessings we’ve received.

We’ve been given the grace to do so. What remains for us is to choose how we’re going to live in the light of that grace, and in the light of those blessings.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Talitha Koum | Proper 8

Mark 5:21-43

21 Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet 23 and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die. Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him. 25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse. 27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes. 28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed. 29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?'” 32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth. 34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher any longer?”

36 But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting.” 37 He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother. 38 They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about? The child isn’t dead. She’s only sleeping.” 40 They laughed at him, but he threw them all out. Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was. 41 Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.” 42 Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around. She was 12 years old. They were shocked! 43 He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened. Then he told them to give her something to eat. (CEB)

Talitha Koum | ταλιθα κουμ

In part, this text from Mark is one of several stories that tell us something of Jesus as king. You might remember some discussion I had in a previous sermon about the word Messiah. The word means anointed, and kings of Israel were invested to the office of king through anointing. So, when we talk about Jesus as the Messiah—or the Greek word Christ—kingship is always included. Mark 5:21-43 reveals that Jesus is king over life and Law, both of which are related to human community.

Here, we have a story, and a story-within-a-story. A leader of the local synagogue, Jairus, came to Jesus, fell at his feet, and told him that his little daughter was near death. Jairus begged Jesus to come lay hands on her so she could be healed and live. So, Jesus went. Thus far in Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish leaders had felt Jesus out and turned against him. They were curious enough to gather in his house at Capernaum and witness his offering of forgiveness and healing to a paralyzed man (2:5-12). They judged him when they saw him eating with known sinners (2:16). They accused him of breaking the Sabbath Law in a couple of places (2:24, 3:2-6). Then, they organized against him by sending for legal experts from Jerusalem to make accusations that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub and evil spirits.

So, the fact that a leader of the synagogue fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal his daughter is surprising because the rest of the Jewish leadership seems to have aligned themselves against Jesus and actively tried to destroy his reputation. But Jairus was a desperate man. The Greek word he used for his child is the diminutive of daughter that was often a term of endearment. Jairus was a desperate father asking Jesus to come heal his little girl.

But as these events were unfolding, a woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years thought that if she could just touch Jesus’ clothes, she’d be made well. Verse 25, alone, tells us a lot about this woman’s predicament. If she had bled for twelve years, then she had been ritually unclean for twelve years. If she had been ritually unclean for twelve years, then she was a woman who existed on the fringes of society and probably had very little physical contact with anyone in that span.

Leviticus 15:25-28 says, “Whenever a woman has a bloody discharge for a long time, which is not during her menstrual period, or whenever she has a discharge beyond her menstrual period, the duration of her unclean discharge will be like the period of her menstruation; she will be unclean. Any bed she lies on during the discharge should be treated like the bed she uses during her menstruation; and any object she sits on will be unclean, as during her menstruation. Anyone who touches these things will be unclean. They must wash their clothes, bathe in water, and will be unclean until evening. When the woman is cleansed of her discharge, she will count off seven days; after that, she will be clean again” (Lev. 15:25-28 CEB). This is part of the law that governed this stuff for women in Jewish society. (It actually begins back in verse 19).

You can imagine how alone this woman was. Because of her ailment, anyone she touched would be considered unclean. Anything she touched that someone else touched would be considered unclean. Honestly, it sounds like a game of cooties gone horribly wrong.

Not only was she an outcast, she was poor. All the money she’d managed to earn, she’s spent it trying to get well. (Apparently, they didn’t have universal healthcare back then, either). But she’d only gotten worse under the care of many doctors. (Physicians back then didn’t have the training that ours do today).

This woman, too, is desperate. She’d heard about Jesus and the healings that had taken place all over Galilee. She might even have thought there was something mystical or magical about him. She’d probably heard that Jesus had been laying hands on people for those healings, and she thought that, if she could only touch his clothes some of that magic might rub off on her and heal her. And, in her mind, she probably thought that she’d have to sneak it because she’d lived for twelve years as someone that most people in her community would not touch.

So, she came up behind him, winding her way through the jostling crowd. It’s almost funny to imagine this scene because every person she bumped into on her way to Jesus was made unclean. But she didn’t care. She was too desperate to care about their ritual purity. If she bumped into them, they’d be unclean until evening, but she knew that if she didn’t get to Jesus, she’d be unclean for the rest of her life.

When she touched his clothes her bleeding stopped, and she sensed in her body that she had been healed. Note also how Jesus sensed that healing power had gone out from him. Jesus felt himself hemorrhage power as the woman’s hemorrhage of blood ceased.

Then, everything stopped. Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (5:30 CEB). Again, the disciples reveal their lack of insight. They essentially said, Are you kidding? Who didn’t touch you? Don’t you see this crowd? But Jesus looked around carefully, searching for the person who had touched him.

You see, it wasn’t enough for Jesus to heal someone of a physical ailment. For one thing, there’s more to wholeness of health than physical healing. For another, Jesus wanted to know the person he had healed. He sought the relationship because loving relationships and caring community are what shape us into whole human beings. Jesus wouldn’t go another step until he found the person he healed.

Meanwhile, Jairus, whose little daughter was dying, didn’t say a word. He didn’t urge Jesus on. He waited. He waited while the woman, this unclean, poor, outcast, fell at the feet of Jesus just as he had moments ago, and confessed that she had touched him. She had made him, a holy man, unclean. She had bumped into all these people, making them unclean.

Part of me wonders about the fear and trembling that overcame her. It’s the same word used to describe how the disciples were overcome with fear after Jesus calmed the storm (Mark 4:41). I think it could have included several aspects. For one, her belief that Jesus could heal her with power that was obviously beyond the mortal realm had just been confirmed. She might have been afraid of Jesus because she’d just stolen that power from him. She might also have been afraid because she’d made Jesus and the whole crowd unclean. Remember, whoever she touches, and whoever touches what she touches… cooties gone wild.

She had no idea how Jesus would react. She knew how he should have reacted according to the law. He should have condemned her. He had every right to under the law. But I wonder if part of her fearful trembling was born of hope that Jesus would finally be the one to have compassion on her, that this healer who hadn’t yet been afraid to touch others might see her as more than a plague to be avoided. Can you imagine her relief and her joy when Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed form your disease,”? (Mark 5:34 CEB).

When Jesus called her “Daughter,” he claimed her as family. This is important. This is the relationship moment. Jesus restored both this woman to the community and the community to her. You see, neither was complete without the other. When Jesus told her to go in peace, healed from her disease, the word he used is different from the other instances of healed in this text. Those other instances also mean saved. But the one at the end of verse 34 means made whole. Her faith healed (σέσωκέν) her from her physical ailment, not magic as she may have suspected! Even more, now that Jesus has restored her to her community, she’s been healed—made whole (ὑγιὴς)—from the disease that had separated her from even the possibility of caring relationships.

Dr. Mike Rynkiewich told me he was reading a dissertation in which the author claimed that “the antidote for shame is not affirmation but connection.” Another scholar, Michael Lindvall, suggested that, beyond physical healing, it is “acceptance, intimacy, and touch” that have the power to “make us whole and give us peace… Our relationships—in the church, in friendships, and in marriage—are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment, as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation. Relationship, ‘touch’ if you will, makes us human and whole. As the contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray once phrased it, ‘I need “you” in order to be myself.’” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. B.3, 192).

On Thursday afternoon, I had a discussion with some younger pastors in the district about the meaning of church membership. The question was posed, “What’s the advantage of membership? What’s the point beyond saying you get to vote on stuff?” My answer pointed them to vows in the liturgy. Since we’ve received new members today, we might want to look more closely at the baptismal covenant. When we join a congregation, we’re connected to a covenant community where we promise to nurture one another and include each other in our care. We promise to live according to the example of Christ and to surround each other with a community of love and forgiveness. We love each other, care for each other, help each other, mourn with each other, worship with each other, and celebrate with each other. These covenant relationships are the things that make us whole.

While Jesus was still speaking to the woman, messengers came to Jairus telling him that his daughter was dead. Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting” (Mark 5:36 CEB). Jesus went inside and tossed the crowd of mourners out. They had laughed at him when he said the girl was only sleeping. They’d seen death before, and this wasn’t sleep. They knew the girl had died. The mourners knew she had no future and no hope.

Jesus took the girl’s hand and said, “Talitha koum,” which means little girl, stand up. Immediately, the girl got up and started walking around. Knowing that death must take a lot out of a person, Jesus told her parents to give the girl something to eat.

In what way is Jesus king? In these stories, he’s king of life and law. Jesus shows over and again that he cares more about people and relationships than religious purity laws. When he took the girl’s hand, he would have been considered unclean from touching a dead body. But Jesus overcomes the law. Instead of being made unclean by touching those who are unclean, the touch of Jesus cleanses. Our touch, our contact with others in meaningful relationships can do the same.

When we enter into relationship with Jesus, and with each other as a covenant community, we’re restored to wholeness through those relationships. In these stories, Jesus teaches us that, as long as there are outcasts and people living on the fringes of society, our community isn’t whole. Those we might think of as they and them and those need us. And, whether we recognize it or not, we need them.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Afraid | Proper 7

Mark 4:35-41

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” (CEB)

Afraid

I heard a story kind of like this once. It was about a small cruise ship on one of the Great Lakes that had been hired for a fraternity reunion party. Of course, everyone knew a storm was coming because they could see the front clouds in the distance. They could feel the wind pick up and the air grow cooler as the clouds approached. The captain assured everyone that there wouldn’t be a problem, and they should all enjoy themselves. So, the fraternity brothers and their significant others danced, ate, drank, and talked. As they caught up on each other’s lives, the storm grew suddenly wilder.

Wind buffeted one side of the ship, causing it to list and rock side-to-side. Waves crashed harshly against the same side, sending spray high above the windows on the dance floor. Drinks spilled. People lost their balance. Men and women screamed. Most everyone started to panic. Then, a terrified man grabbed one of his fraternity brothers and said, “Didn’t you say you’re a pastor? Do something pastoral!”

The pastor glanced at the growing terror of those around him. He quickly dumped a bowl of caramel corn on the table, held it out and said, “We’ll now receive the offering.”

Our Gospel reading begins with, “Later that day, when evening came…” (c.f. Mark 4:35 CEB). Those words alert us to the fact that something must have happened earlier in the day. So, let’s recap what happened. Jesus taught beside the lake, but such a large crowd gathered that he got into a boat and taught while the people stood on the shore. He told several parables about seeds: seeds that are sown on a path, on rocky ground, among thorny plants, and on good soil (4:3-9); seed that grows into a harvest (4:26-29); and a small mustard seed that grows into a rather large plant (4:30-32), among other things. Later, Jesus explained the parables to his disciples and others who were nearby (4:10-20, 34).

Verse 2 and verse 33 tell us that Jesus taught with many parables that day, as much as they were able to hear. He wore the crowds out with speech, and wore himself out, too. Public speaking takes a lot out of you. I get why Jesus was tired. I take a nap every Sunday afternoon before going to Youth Group in the evening. So, it’s understandable that Jesus crashed on a pillow in the back of the boat. He taught all day, and he was tired.

Then, the storm came. But not just a storm. A great gale of wind (λαῖλαψ μεγάλη ἀνέμου). In our idiomatic English, we might say it was a massive storm of wind. It whipped up waves that crashed against the boat and swamped it. Usually, when we read this story, we imagine panicked disciples who wake Jesus so he can perform a miracle and save them. But, honestly, there’s little in the story to suggest that. The only suggestion that the disciples were afraid is when Jesus asked them why they were frightened, and that word isn’t fear, the word means timid, cowardly, or lack confidence.

Several of the disciples were experienced fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. They knew the waters, knew how to handle their boats, and had probably survived more rough storms than they could count. There is no reason to assume the disciples were panicked, but they were obviously concerned and probably working hard to save their skin.

When they woke Jesus up, I don’t think they were expecting a miracle. I think they wanted an extra pair of hands to help bail the boat. Their comment to Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” (Mark 4:38b CEB) seems more akin to Hey, Professor, don’t you care that we’re getting swamped here? Get up and help bail the boat, you lazy git! Nothing in the story indicates the disciples expected Jesus to do what he did, that he could rescue them with a few commanding words to the wind and sea.

He rebuked the wind and spoke to the sea saying, “Silence! Be still!” and the wind stopped so that there was a great calm (γαλήνη μεγάλη). Then, Jesus asked the disciples a question that is challenging, confusing, and haunting, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (Mark 4:40 CEB). It begs the questions: What is faith? What kind of faith is Jesus talking about? We can look back in the earlier parts of Mark 4 and see that Jesus was teaching on the matter of faith all day. That’s why he was exhausted and fell asleep.

At this point in their lives, the disciples seem to have had the kind of faith that was like the seed that was sown on rocky ground. “When people hear the word, they immediately receive it joyfully. Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away” (Mk. 4:16-17 CEB). The faith of the disciples withered in a storm. And I have to admit that my own faith has done the same at times; not with a literal storm, but with the figurative storms of life’s trials and difficulties.

The disciples’ lack of faith is revealed fully in the next line. Some Bible translations tend to tone this down by rendering the Greek into English as, “Overcome with awe” like the CEB or “they were filled with great awe” like the NRSV. But they disciples feared with great fear (ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν). They were terrified at what Jesus had done. They were more afraid of the fact that Jesus had calmed the storm than they were of the storm itself.

How do we respond when fearful things threaten to overcome us?

There are fearful things out there. There’s a difference between saying There is nothing to be afraid of and Don’t be afraid. In the Scriptures, when something fearful happens, the admonition is always, Don’t be afraid (c.f. Genesis 15:1, 21:17, 35:17, 46:3; Exodus 14:3; Deuteronomy 1:29; Ruth 3:11; 1 Kings 17:13; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30, 2:10; Acts 27:24; Revelation 1:17, among others). Though fearful things surround us and press against us every day, having faith is trusting that, despite the fearful things of this world, God reigns and will not leave us alone. Fearful things do not have the final say over us no matter what happens.

Another storm story comes from the journals of the founder of the Methodist Movement. On Sunday, December 23, 1735, John Wesley was aboard a ship heading for the Georgia Colony, and the ship experienced a storm. He wrote in his journal, “At night I was awaked by the tossing of the ship and roaring of the wind, and plainly showed I was unfit, for I was unwilling to die” (Baker Vol. I, 19). He admitted that he was afraid, that his faith failed, that he didn’t trust that God was with him even if death should come for him. And he felt that failure of his faith keenly.

Several weeks later, on Sunday, January 25, 1736, Wesley described another storm, saying, “At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before… The winds roared round about us, and (what I never heard before) whistled as distinctly as if it had been a human voice. The ship not only rocked to and fro with the utmost violence, but shook and jarred with so unequal, grating a motion, that one could not but with great difficulty keep one’s hold of any thing, nor stand a moment without it. Every ten minutes came a shock against the stern or side of the ship, which one would think should dash the planks to pieces” (Baker Vol I, 21).

At seven o’clock, after the storm had passed, Wesley went to speak with the Germans aboard who had been worshipping during the storm. He wrote, “In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’” (Baker Vol. I, 22).

Those German Moravians had a profound impact on John Wesley’s faith. They sang songs of worship through a storm so violent that they were sure their ship was already going down. The Moravians had faith that, whether they lived or died, God was with them, and God would have the final say. They had faith that even death is not an end.

In essence, the Moravians acted with the faith of Psalm 107: “The waves went as high as the sky; they crashed down to the depths. The sailors’ courage melted at this terrible situation. They staggered and stumbled around like they were drunk. None of their skill was of any help. So they cried out to the LORD in their distress, and God brought them out safe from their desperate circumstances. God quieted the storm to a whisper; the sea’s waves were hushed. So they rejoiced because the waves had calmed down; then God led them to the harbor they were hoping for” (Ps. 107:26-30 CEB). Faith moves like this: when great storms give way to great calm, the response is supposed to be rejoicing and praise.

For the disciples, it didn’t go that way. When the great storm gave way to great calm, their response was great fear. In calming the storm, Jesus showed the disciples that he is, quite unexpectedly, king over all creation. Our faith holds fast to that truth no matter what fearful things come our way. Faith is knowing that, no matter the storms that come against us, God is greater than the storms. Faith tells us that we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

A House Divided | Proper 5

Mark 3:20-35

20 Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”

22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”

23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24 A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25 And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27 No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28 I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29 But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”

31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”

33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (CEB)

A House Divided

This text has always made Christians worry, and maybe for good reason. We’re afraid of the unforgivable sin of offending the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we’re nervous because we don’t know what offending the Holy Spirit is. I mean, what if we do it accidentally? Would God really not forgive us? Would God really send us to Hell because of an accident? I mean, it sounds kind of harsh. I’ve had people come to me and ask what it is because they don’t understand what it is. They wanted me to identify it for them so they could make sure they didn’t do the big oops and wind up in a situation where they won’t be forgiven.

Whenever Jesus says something that we find confusing, we have to look at the context. It’s something Rev. Dr. Mike Rynkiewich and I are teaching in our Bible study classes on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday nights. Context matters. It can inform those difficult-to-understand snippets, especially when we read the snippet as if it’s not related to the stuff before and after it.

We know things had been going on before this text because Mark tells us, “Jesus entered a house. A crowed gathered again…” (c.f. Mark 3:20 CEB). That word again tells us that this wasn’t the first time a crowd had gathered around Jesus. When we come across a word like again, wise students of the Bible will turn the pages backward to check out the previous instances of whatever happened, and maybe the other stuff that Jesus has been up to as well.

When we look at Mark chapters 1, 2, and 3, we see that Jesus was baptized by John, who announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB). Jesus was baptized and tempted in the wilderness. Then, he started preaching, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (1:14 CEB). Note that Jesus didn’t say, “Dig in your heels” but “Change your hearts and lives, and trust…” He called his disciples to follow him, too.

Then, in one day, he healed a demon-possessed man on the Sabbath while in the Synagogue at Capernaum, he healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and that evening he healed multiple people of sickness and demon-possession because everyone who knew a sick person was bringing them to Jesus for healing. This was the first big crowd.

Later, Jesus healed a man with a skin disease who blabbed so much about being healed (directly disobeying Jesus’ stern order to keep quiet) that Jesus could hardly enter a town. So, he stayed out in deserted places, but people still went out to him. So, more crowds gathered. Many crowds gathered.

In Chapter 2, Jesus went back to his home in Capernaum, and when people heard it, a crowd packed his house. So many people gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. So a few enterprising people tore a hole in Jesus’ roof to lower their sick friend down to him. But first, Jesus forgave the man of his sins, which annoyed some legal experts who were also present in Jesus’ house. To prove that he had authority to forgive sins, he healed the paralyzed man before the legal expert’s eyes.

Later, another crowd gathered near him at the lake, and he taught them. That’s when he invited Levi, the tax collector, to follow him, and he went to eat at Levi’s house alongside many other tax collectors and known sinners. You see, everyone KNEW these people were sinners. They had no doubt that these people were sinners. But Jesus did this incredibly unexpected thing and ate with them. The Pharisees saw it as a violation of purity laws to have fellowship with a sinner of any kind. Jesus was breaking the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law of Moses.

Jesus and his disciples also picked grains of wheat on the Sabbath and ate them. And, the Pharisees asked why Jesus was breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath Law. The Law said that no work should be done but doesn’t specify the nature of the work. Jesus and his disciples are essentially gleaning, which was legal. So, the question is whether or not it was legal on the Sabbath to pick grain, not in order to harvest but to satisfy hunger. The interpretation that Jesus made of the Law is that it was okay for hungry people to feed themselves. The Pharisees disagreed.

Next, in chapter 3, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Because this action of healing a person violated their interpretation of the Law, the Pharisees and supporters of Herod went out and sought a way to destroy Jesus.

All of this context points to what happens in the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus entered his house and a crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him or his followers to even eat bread. His family had heard all about it, and they were fit to be tied. They decided it was time for an intervention because Jesus was obviously out of his mind. The word used is a compound word made up of out of and to make stand. So the way they said someone was nuts back then was to say they stood out of their self. (Now, the next time someone tells you you’re outstanding, you’ll wonder if it’s a compliment).

Not only is Jesus’ family coming to get a hold of him, but the legal experts have mobilized in their effort to destroy him. They’ve sent a contingent from Jerusalem, and they were spreading the charge that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, which is a name that means Lord of the Flies. Jesus, they say, throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.

So, what we see here is a group of religious people who held to a certain interpretation of Scripture, and they were so adamant about that particular interpretation of Scripture that they were willing to say anything to denounce Jesus and destroy his reputation.

The thing is, the Pharisees and legal experts had seen with their own eyes the things Jesus did. They saw him heal people. They were drawn to him, too, that’s why they were at his house when he healed the crippled man. According to their own understanding of the Law, God doesn’t listen to sinners. Only someone who was on God’s side could do the things Jesus did (c.f. John 3:2). In fact, these signs were proof that Jesus was a prophet of God. The legal experts and Pharisees knew that. But, now that they felt the need to defend their interpretations and conclusions about the Scriptures and religious life, they actively attempted to make Jesus and his work into something Satanic.

So, Jesus called everyone together and told a parable. The first part is logic, “How can Satan throw Satan out? A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for” (Mk. 3:23-26 CEB).

The second part is Jesus describing himself as the one who walked into the strong person’s house and tied him up so he could burglarize it. Remember what John the Baptist said back in chapter one: “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB)? Jesus is stronger than Satan, and that’s why he’s able to throw demons out of people who were possessed by them. He’s not Beelzubul in disguise. Jesus is essentially saying, I tied Beelzebul up and started stealing his stuff. Beelzebul owned some people, I stole them back.

Now, we’re at the part that can worry us, and maybe should worry us. It should especially worry us when we think that we know God’s will so perfectly that we can map out the movements of the Spirit, that we know what lines God will never cross, when we know exactly who and what God accepts and who and what God rejects. Jesus said, “‘I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” Mk. 3:28-29 CEB). Mark lets us know that Jesus said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.’” (Mk. 3:30 CEB).

The unforgivable sin happens when we see the work of the Holy Spirit with our own eyes, or hear of it with our own ears, yet because we don’t like it—because it doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions and interpretations—we identify it as the work of Satan. The detractors of Jesus saw and heard of his healings, but because certain matters of his Biblical interpretation didn’t jive with their interpretations, they labeled the work of the Holy Spirit as evil. That kind of arrogance can lead any of us to mislabel what God is doing as the work of Satan. Whether the sin is eternally unforgivable is another matter of debate because Jesus used hyperbole all the time. My understanding of the matter is that if we repent of that sin and join in with the Holy Spirit’s work, then God will forgive us.

Now, in the next few years, our church, The United Methodist Church, has some stuff to figure out about human sexuality and whether people who are homosexual are going to be fully welcome among us. And it’s not going to be easy. It was apparent at Annual Conference in Indianapolis due to some of the resolutions we discussed and did not pass. It has been made apparent at several other annual Conferences that have taken place this year based on resolutions they have passed or failed to pass. Lines are being drawn and people are fighting for their understanding of the issues of human sexuality, and for their interpretations of the Scriptures.

But I want to offer a pastoral word of caution. Before we withdraw into our already-firm conclusions and our personal Biblical interpretations, before we start calling one side or the other evil or wrong or sinful—whether aloud or in our internal monologue—I caution each of us to be patient. I hope we’ll listen to perspectives that differ from our own. I hope we’ll open our hearts and minds to see where that unpredictable Spirit of God is blowing.

There was a time when the church was segregated by race, but now all are supposed to be welcome. That’s what our baptismal & membership vows claim. (I think we still have some work to do on that one). There was a time when women were not allowed to be ordained or hold certain other leadership positions in the church, but now we ordain women and every leadership position is open. (I think we still have some work to do on that one, too).

We don’t know what’ll happen at the Special Session of General Conference in 2019 or how we’ll move forward as a church. Three plans have been set forth for consideration, and I encourage you to read them. I urge you to speak and, most importantly, I urge you to listen with empathetic ears. What I believe, wholeheartedly, is that if we pay attention—not for that moment when our side wins the debate—but if we pay attention to the movements and urgings of the Holy Spirit and see other people as beloved of God, we’ll move into the next decade and beyond as The United Methodist Church.

But if we fight amongst ourselves in a civil war and try to throw each other out; if we rebel against each other and are divided, then we’re done for. We won’t endure.

When Jesus’ family showed up at the door to his house, they couldn’t even get inside. So people told him, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.” (Mk. 3:32 CEB). The thing is, when Jesus replied “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Mark 3:33 CEB), he didn’t reject his family. He broadened his family. He made it bigger. Jesus said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3:34-35 CEB). Perhaps we can discern God’s will by listening and speaking, praying and worshipping, loving and seeking – together.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay